NOTE: The original of Moll Flanders does not have chapter divisions. To provide greater clarity in the summaries and discussions, we have divided the novel into chapters.
My true name is so well known in the records or registers at Newgate, and in the Old Bailey, and there are some things of such consequence still depending there, relating to my particular conduct, that it is not to be expected I should set my name or the account of my family to this work; perhaps, after my death, it may be better known; at present it would not be proper, no, not though a general pardon should be issued, even without exceptions and reserve of persons or crimes.
Moll Flanders, as our character is called by her criminal associates, was born in Newgate Prison in London, England, where her mother was imprisoned for a petty theft. Moll tells us, in this personal history of her life, that after her birth, her mother was "transported to the plantations." Moll believes that she herself fell into bad hands and, until she was three years old, lived with gypsies from whom she then fled.
Because she was too young to work, the town authorities put Moll in the charge of a well-bred but poor woman whom Moll called "nurse." This woman kept a small school where Moll was taught reading, needlework, and manners.
At the age of eight Moll became terrified by the news that the town authorities planned to make her a household servant. She begged her nurse to allow her to remain with her and sew for her living. Her appeal was so forceful and constant that the nurse resolved to ask the Mayor to allow Moll to stay with her until she was older. This concession did not satisfy Moll, who was determined to become a "gentlewoman" when she grew up and to make her living in a business of her own. Her strong determination not to become a household servant amused the nurse, the Mayor, his wife, and their two daughters, since Moll's idea of a gentlewoman was quite different from the idea held by the others. Moll understood the term to designate a woman who was successfully self-employed, whereas the others meant one who lived well, rich, and high. The kind of woman Moll had in mind was a neighbor who appeared to make her living by her needlework. Her nurse explained that the woman was, in fact, a prostitute; but Moll, not understanding this explanation, resolutely insisted that the woman was a gentlewoman who did not go into service or do housework, and that she would be such a gentlewoman as that. This further amused the Mayor's wife and daughters, who frequently visited Moll to see her needlework and give her money for living expenses. Her manners and conversation were so appealing that Moll soon became a favorite of the prosperous matrons of the town, who also brought tier sewing to do.
When Moll was about ten years old, she again feared the town authorities might send her into service. Fortunately, by this time Moll was earning enough money from her needlework to maintain herself. Therefore, her nurse requested Moll's services as her assistant. In addition, Moll endeared herself to the rich matrons so that they gave her clothes and money more often than formerly. At twelve, Moll could buy her own clothes and pay for her keep.
When she was thirteen, Moll was invited to live for a week with one of the matrons and her two daughters. About a year later, Moll's nurse died, leaving Moll to face the world alone. Soon, however, the lady in whose family Moll had spent a week sent for her to come and live with her family. The Mayoress and other prosperous matrons were all a little angry, because they had hoped to have Moll live with them.
Moll Flanders was given this name by her criminal associates; she used it throughout this autobiographical account so as not to cause her family any embarrassment or to expose herself to any danger from some previous vicious criminal acquaintances now that she had repented for her crimes.
Newgate Prison, Moll's birthplace, became a shadow over her entire life.
At this time in history, England sent many of her prisoners (Moll's mother, for instance) to her colony, America, when her prisons became too full to hold them all. These criminals became convict laborers, and some worked out their time on the plantations of Virginia and Maryland. After serving their time, many later became plantation-owners themselves.
At the beginning of the novel, Moll explains how some other countries provide for orphans by assigning them to a hospital called the House of Orphans where they are cared for and taught a trade until they are able to provide for themselves. In the first chapter Moll points up England's irresponsibility toward her orphans. This is a foreshadowing of Moll's development into a thief and prostitute.
Moll's "nurse" was her foster mother. The term applies to women whom the magistrates or town authorities made guardians of orphans until they were old enough to become servants in the homes of the rich.
The desire to become a gentlewoman rather than a servant is the motivating theme of Moll's life. Here we see Moll as a determined and independent character who refused to change her goal in life despite the means she had to employ. Moll determined to become self-employed and resist being sent into service.